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Grant, William (1870–1939)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

William Grant, by George Lambert, 1918

William Grant, by George Lambert, 1918

Australian War Memorial, ART02770

William Grant (1870-1939), grazier and soldier, was born on 30 September 1870 at Pleasant Creek (Stawell), Victoria, son of Scottish-born Edmund Craigie Grant, miner and later mine-owner and grazier, and his wife Elizabeth Ann, née Parkinson, from England. He was educated at Brighton Grammar School and Ormond College at the University of Melbourne from which he graduated B.C.E. in 1893 and received a rowing blue. He was employed on railway construction in New South Wales in 1894, but after his father's death that year he gave up engineering for the land and bought Bowenville station on the Darling Downs, Queensland, in 1896. He married Eveline Ryan Woolcott at All Saints Anglican Church, St Kilda, Melbourne, on 21 July 1897; they had three sons and two daughters.

In 1901 Grant was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Queensland Mounted Infantry (militia). He was old for his rank but education and a flair for soldiering made up for this. 'He was a typical light horse subaltern', according to General Sir Harry Chauvel, 'tall, lithe and wiry, and full of dash and energy, and I early had my eye on him as a possible leader'. Promotion came quickly; as a major he took command of the 14th Light Horse in 1910 and was made lieutenant-colonel next year. In the reorganization of 1912 his regiment became the 3rd (Darling Downs) Light Horse.

It was not until March 1915 that Grant was offered command of the 11th Light Horse Regiment in the Australian Imperial Force. The unit went to Egypt with the 4th Light Horse Brigade only to be disbanded and dispatched to Gallipoli late in August as reinforcements to other light horse regiments. Grant, with one of his squadrons, was allotted to the 9th Light Horse who were engaged in the futile struggle for Hill 60; when the commanding officer of the 9th was killed Grant took command on 29 August, remaining with the regiment until the evacuation when it returned to Egypt. He resumed command of the 11th Light Horse when it was re-formed early in 1916 but served under British command. That year he took part in a number of successful minor operations in Sinai where he quickly won a reputation for his 'phenomenal sense of locality and direction'. In a raid on Maghara in October he led the column across trackless dune country and through fog so accurately that 'as daylight was breaking, the advanced screen was fired on by a Turkish outpost'. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in December.

After the 4th Light Horse Brigade had been re-formed as part of the Imperial Mounted Division, Grant led his 11th Regiment in the abortive 2nd battle of Gaza in April 1917. In August he was promoted brigadier general and given command of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade but a month later transferred to the 4th Light Horse Brigade on the eve of the 3rd battle of Gaza. In that battle Grant was set the task of galloping the Turkish defences to the east of Beersheba and seizing the wells which were believed to be vital to any further advance of the Desert Mounted Corps. That bold thrust in the gathering dusk suited his impetuous temperament and provided a chance for his brigade to prove itself. The charge of the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments, with Grant initially at their head, was one of the most brilliant feats of the campaign. Driven home at no great cost to the Australians, it was completely successful. All the wells but two were captured intact while the Turks fled in disarray. The commander-in-chief, General Sir Edmund Allenby, personally decorated Grant with a Bar to his D.S.O., the day after the charge.

Grant was prominent in the battles of 1918. In the 2nd battle of the Jordan (30 April–4 May) his task was to cover the left flank of the Desert Mounted Corps while other troops captured Es Salt and attacked the main Turkish position. In spite of a rapid advance he failed to reach and seize the main crossing of the Jordan at Jisr ed Damieh. Next morning the Turks attacked him in overwhelming strength. His brigade fell back, losing nine of the twelve guns supporting it; however, when reinforced, it prevented the enemy from cutting off the rest of the Australian Mounted Division in Es Salt. Allenby acknowledged that Grant's withdrawal was ably conducted but considered that his defensive layout had been faulty, blaming him for the loss of the guns, the only guns which Australians lost to the enemy in the whole war except for those deliberately abandoned in the evacuation of Anzac. Grant had been sufficiently concerned about his defences to ask for an additional regiment before the Turkish attack but owing to the shortage of troops his request was refused.

In the triumphant battles of September 1918, presaging the collapse of Turkey, Grant led his brigade with success, notably in the fight for Semakh. The village was held by a strong garrison of German and Turkish troops. Riding by night with less than half the brigade, Grant surprised the defenders, the 11th Light Horse charging in the moonlight with swords drawn. They were surprised in their turn by the obstinate resistance of the enemy, forcing them to clear houses with the bayonet room by room, an experience probably unique in the campaign. The garrison of over 500 was killed or captured except for a handful who fled. Grant was awarded the Order of the Nile, 3rd class, in 1918 and appointed C.M.G. in 1919; he was mentioned in dispatches four times. For a brief period at the end of 1918 he commanded the Australian Mounted Division.

Grant returned to his property on the Darling Downs in August 1919 and within a year was appointed to command the 1st Light Horse Brigade in the Citizen Military Forces. In May 1921 this was designated 1st Cavalry Brigade and he remained in command until June 1925. He was placed on the retired list in 1928.

Colonel P. J. Bailey, who knew Grant better than most, described him as 'one of nature's gentlemen, a fine soldier and a firm friend of all Diggers'. He was known for his fairness and reliability and for his attention to every aspect of his command.

Grant sold Bowenville in 1931 and lived in Brisbane but in 1934 he bought Corack, a property near Dirranbandi in southern Queensland. He died suddenly of heart failure at Southport on 25 May 1939 and was cremated with military honours in Brisbane. He was survived by his wife and children. A pencil sketch of Grant by George Lambert is held by the Australian War Memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • H. S. Gullett, The A.I.F in Sinai and Palestine, 1914-18 (Syd, 1923)
  • E. W. Hammond, History of the Eleventh Light Horse Regiment (Brisb, 1942)
  • G. W. Nutting, History of the Fourth Light Horse Brigade (Brisb, 1953)
  • A. J. Hill, Chauvel of the Light Horse (Melb, 1978)
  • London Gazette, 1, 29 Dec 1916, 12, 18 Jan, 9 Nov 1918, 3, 5 June 1919, 11 June 1920
  • Reveille (Sydney), June, July 1939
  • war diaries, 11th Light Horse Regiment, and 4th Light Horse Brigade, Australian Mounted Division (Australian War Memorial).

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Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Grant, William (1870–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/grant-william-6457/text11055, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 12 December 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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